I recently spent a few days in Hamburg visiting my friend Chauncey, a classical tenor who frequently tours with “The New York Harlem Theatre,” a non-union production company that has been bringing its staging of Porgy and Bess to European cities off and on for more than a decade. Last summer I spent a couple of days in Hannover with Chauncey and his colleagues in the ensemble and had such a good time that I decided to connect with them again on this trip.
The 100-member company, including 50 chorus members and an orchestra of Bulgarian musicians, travels in several buses from city to city and this year alone they have performed in France, Germany, Switzerland, Luxemburg, Italy and Spain. Most of the singers, like Chauncey, have their primary residence in the US; others have been living for years as expatriates in Europe; and a handful are currently under contract with a national opera company and are flown in once a week to sing one of the principal roles.
As with any other non-union tour, the performers are working under less than ideal conditions in terms of pay (low), benefits (none), rehearsal time (minimal). Most are performing multiple roles eight shows a week. The eighth show is often an “all-covers” performance, in which all principal roles are sung by ensemble members who normally handle minor characters. Chauncey, who is the regular Sportin’ Life, and I attended the first act of one such performance during my visit, as he wanted to see the show from the house (a sold-out Saturday matinee, by the way). We were both disappointed at the visible level of exhaustion onstage. But the conductor was excellent, the orchestra more than adequate. Judging from the applause, the audience was satisfied and I have to admit, the covers’ performance of the duet “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” actually brought tears to my eyes—a minor miracle, when you realize that this was my umpteenth viewing of this scene.
Right before the evening performance, a couple of the singers whipped up a three-course home-cooked Southern meal in a tiny hotel room. I was witness to yet another miracle, as they chopped, sliced, seasoned, fried and boiled, using a collection of borrowed or hoarded utensils and appliances. And during the process, someone was mixing cocktails in a tall Weizenbier-glass. It was all, needless to say, delicious.
Most of these enormously talented performers can’t get arrested here at home—how many successful black opera tenors can you name?—but here they are adored by audiences, experience a rare sense of artistic continuity and community, get a chance to see the world and, of course, sing some of the loveliest and most enduring music in the American canon. I wonder what the Gershwins would think of this development, that their most controversial work has become a crowd-pleasing, lucrative venture for a producer as well as a consistent, major source of income for so many African-American performers.